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The world's best effort to curb global warming probably won't prevent catastrophe

The Paris climate agreement was a milestone, but it’s not enough

NASA's Operation IceBridge Maps Changes To Antartica's Ice Mass Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The promises that various countries have made to curb greenhouse emissions still won’t be enough to stop dangerous levels of global warming, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Program. Even under the terms of the Paris climate agreement, we’re probably going to see temperatures rise by about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 compared to preindustrial levels. Our best efforts don’t seem to be outpacing how fast our carbon levels are expected to grow; UNEP head Erik Solheim warned that drought, mass migration, and disease were all possible consequences of this much global warming.

The landmark Paris agreement — which was reached last December and goes into effect this month — committed almost every country to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions. It was never meant to be a magic solution. Scientists said then that even if fully implemented, the plan would still only reduce emissions by half as much as necessary to prevent a global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. (It is considered crucial to avoid the 3.6 degree temperature increase in order to protect the planet.)

But the newest report shows that we still won’t reach that goal. We’re on track to have emissions reach about 54 to 56 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year by 2030. That’s a lot higher than 42 gigatons a year, which is probably the point at which warming exceeds 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

In many ways, this report is not a surprise. Previous research has suggested that the US will need to expand its climate change plans to combat greenhouse emissions and that the terms of the Paris agreement are not enough.

This July was the hottest month on record, and in September we passed the crucial threshold of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists said then that we would likely never return to below 400 ppm in our lifetime. That threshold might be gone, but this newest report shows how much more we’ll need to do to prevent further disaster, above and beyond the Paris accords.

Correction: We recently passed the threshold of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and temperatures will rise by 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. An earlier version misstated the number of parts per mission and said temperatures would rise by 5.4 degrees by 2030.